You Chose to Be Here

School choice is a politically charged idea in America because it has been promoted by right-wing groups with an agenda to maintain, or even increase, the already disturbing disparity in education quality between the rich and the poor in our country. But as I have travelled around England, cataloging the array of options available to students 16 and older, I am realizing that there is more to this issue. I feel like it’s time for those of us who really care about providing a great future for all students to reframe the idea of school choice, especially for high school students.

British students choose their path at about age 16, whether it is toward a traditional academic setting, a vocational college, or a job-based placement. And this concept of choice, especially in relation to student behavior in school, keeps working its way into the conversations I have been having with British school administrators. Some have been casual conversations, like the one I had on a recent train ride to London with a high school head teacher (American translation: principal) who just happened to sit across the table from me and strike up a conversation. Others have been during my more official interviews through my Fulbright project. Without my ever asking about it, most conversations eventually work their way into a discussion of student behavior. I suppose it would be the same if I were to talk with American educators. And I suspect the conversation would have been the same if I had been traveling 50, or even 100, years ago. Young people just don’t always act the way we want them to. Go figure.

During my train conversation, one of the head teacher’s first questions when he found out I taught in an American high school was whether we had a police officer stationed in the school where I teach. I told him that we have at least two full time, every day, and there are some days when we have up to four. And that is in a close-knit, rural community with a high school of about 1800 kids. He shook his head in disbelief, and wanted to know what the police do.  I told him that they sometimes educate students about complying with laws and try to establish relationships with students, but mainly they do what police do – they enforce the law when it is broken on school grounds. He said that he thought he would have a hard time retaining students in that kind of climate. They would choose a different setting or just leave school as soon as they could. I had to explain that, in our rural school, there are no other settings to choose from, and students are required to stay there until the age of 18. After some thought, he agreed that maybe police officers would be needed in my situation.

I had another conversation about behavior with the high school leader of an academy (American translation: vice-principal – in a type of school that is often described to me as being like an American charter school) after I had been observing classrooms in his school all day. Whenever I am observing schools for my Fulbright project, I ask to see classrooms that serve students who struggle with academics, have special education needs, or are at-risk for not completing school with the qualifications they need, because this group of students is the focus of my project. When I finished observing, the high school leader asked me right off what I thought of the students’ behavior. I answered that the they had been, for the most part, engaged in the classroom tasks and attentive to the teacher. He then directly asked me whether I thought the students in his school behaved better than students in the US school where I teach. I responded that there is a lot variability in any school from day to day and class to class but that yes, his students were generally better behaved than in most classrooms of their type in my school. He said he thought his teachers would be surprised to hear that.

I asked him how many fights he usually had to break up in a year, and how often they caught students selling drugs at school. He replied that the kids who might do that kind of thing don’t usually go to his school. I asked what he would do if he had a student who persistently refused to participate and caused disruptions. He said that he can usually talk to a student and remind them, “You chose to be here.” Hmmm, that’s just it, isn’t it?

And then yesterday, I heard almost those same words from the director of a program within a further education college designed for students who are exactly the kind of kids who don’t go to the academy described in the paragraph above. The students in this program are recruited back into education after dropping out, are given the option to transfer in when they are at high risk for dropping out, or come from Pupil Referral Units when they have been excluded from a previous school because of persistent behavioral problems.  The director said most of the students who come to her program learn to treat the staff and fellow students, as well as the building, with respect. She said that she often has to be strict with them, and if they act out, she will tell them. “You don’t have to be here. You came here because you have chosen to be here.”

So even in a setting that most of us would see as a last resort for students who haven’t been successful anywhere else in the educational system, the issue of choosing one’s own path is seen by those working directly in schools every day as critical to maintaining order, and to motivating students to “buy-in” to the program goals.

I am going to explore the effects of school choice, both good and bad, in future blogs. There is research evidence, like this, for example, that shows that giving students more choice can improve behavior. Beyond the research, though, two ideas I am finding interesting are: first, the primacy of the issue of student behavior to the people working directly in schools, and second, how integrally connected the ideas of school choice and student behavior are in the talks I am having with British school administrators.

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